Almost two years ago I started my MBA. The application process for it started a year or so before that. I remember being bewildered by the number of business schools to choose from and that, aside from location and their ranking, they all seemed pretty much the same. Students and alumni at every school claimed they were amongst the best for reputation, for recruiting, and for academics. And to an extent these claims were all true.
But that didn’t help me narrow down my application list. Instead, my application short list was based largely on the impression made by the wholly unrepresentative sample of students and alumni that I met from each of these schools. It seemed like the best method at the time.
With hindsight, now I can confirm that, yes, the top schools are all very similar on the surface. But with a little digging it’s possible to find a large number of differences between business schools. Those differences may be small things like whether a school hosts free drinks each week or how you select your electives. As you add up all these differences though and then compare schools, you’ll definitely see distinct pictures of the schools emerge.
Why should you care? The first reason is that you’ll likely be studying there for two years. That’s a decent chunk of time so it’s in your interest to find the place best suited for you. That can be hard; you may not know what is ‘best’ for you now. Also, chances are that if you enjoy business school at one place, you would probably fit in and be happy at another school too. But still, the little things can make the difference between a good time and a great time.
The second reason, and arguably more important (or at least more Machiavellian), is that it will help with your application to that school. If you have a good knowledge of what really sets that business school apart, that will impress in your essays and application.
So what actually are the differences between the top business schools? You could ask questions like ‘What’s the best thing about this school?’ or ‘What’s the worst thing?’ Boring! I often asked these types of questions and I would get similar responses at whatever school I visited. But I want to make life easier for you. Here’s where I’ve observed some big differences between top business schools. It would be in your interest to think about and learn the answers to these questions before applying to your chosen business schools.
Is the school better at any particular subject area?
Every business school offers courses across every subject area. But some schools excel at certain areas. Kellogg is known for marketing, LBS is known for finance. In these departments at these schools, you’ll likely benefit from better professors; more elective options; and access to influential outside speakers. You may not necessarily improve your employment prospects in these fields (nor harm them in others), but it could mean you get a far better education in these subject areas. The subsequent benefit being that you become more knowledgeable and better connected than your peers at other business schools in that subject area.
How rigorous are the classes and how many hours outside of class are required?
Some schools have a higher workload than others. This can also vary within subject areas at a school, for example, finance courses may require more outside work than marketing courses. Academic rigour is good, but if you’re constantly hitting the books in the library, when do you get to take part in clubs, socialise with classmates, and search for the post-MBA job? There is more to the MBA than just the academics.
A word of caution: it’s a universal truth that the workload of MBA students initially is high, so making a comparison against the first semester won’t be useful. Instead, ask about the workload after the first semester or after the first year.
How many core classes are required?
Some schools require you to take a prescribed list of classes in your first year, with little exception. Others provide you with more flexibility. If you’re looking for a well-rounded learning experience, the former is good. But if you want to become an operations management guru, you may want the latter so that you can skip straight to the electives that matter.
Are their streams/sections/cohorts? How are they chosen? How do people interact and socialise within the sections and between sections?
Most business schools have some concept of a section: a group of 60-90 students you do the majority of your classes with. Usually schools try and create a mini version of the United Nations by amassing a variety of nationalities and professions. The personalities of sections even with a school can vary significantly, so what you hear from current students may not be reflective of your own experience. But nevertheless, find out whether people enjoyed it.
Are there study groups? Do they matter?
Some schools place you into a study group that you keep for your entire first year. These are an even smaller cross-section of your stream. Other schools change study groups every semester or even in every course. There are tradeoffs between the two approaches: the same study group for the entire year can lead to great friendships, it’s also easier to share the workload around. On the otherhand, you miss out on working with a greater variety of personality types and may miss out on friendships being formed.
Some schools have courses where a large percentage of your grade is based on work you do as a study group. At other schools it’s just an informal group for discussing the classwork. Think about which you prefer and find out which approach your business school takes.
Are there any unique requirements?
LBS and INSEAD both require you to learn a second or third language. Some schools have components that require you to study overseas for a week as an international business experience. Is this something you want? Or is it an unnecessary burden for you?
What are the campus facilities like?
Places like Columbia, NYU and LBS are in the heart of major cities. It’s a great experience being in New York and London, but it comes with the concession of being constrained by space. Some schools also share their facilities with undergrad students. Does that then mean it becomes a challenge to find a desk or study room in the library? Or perhaps the bench press in the gym is always in use.
How are electives allocated?
Some business schools have a bidding system, at others you must rank your preferred courses, others still probably leave it to some mystic incantations to determine which courses you’re allocated. It’s important to know how courses are allocated to better understand whether you’ll be able to get on the courses you want.
Who are the good professors and will I be able to study with them?
Every business school has its rockstar professors who feature on various top lists. Chances are you want to take a course offered by one of these professors. But will you be able to? Some of these professors only teach to the Executive MBAs, or teach at a satellite campus on the other side of the globe, or they only teach once a year (which may then clash with your overseas exchange/extended internship/beach holiday). Even if you overcome those hurdles, can you then get on the course (see previous question)? In short, if there is a particular professor you want to study under, find out how easy it is to take their courses.
What clubs are on campus?
Clubs are a great way to learn and extend your ability in both professional and social pursuits. If you’re founding a startup, get involved with the tech and entrepreneur clubs, or if you want to become a consultant, join the consulting club. They’ll help you immensely move ahead in your chosen industry. They’re also a fantastic way to meet people and have fun. I immensely enjoyed my two years as part of the rugby club.
Of course, if a club isn’t on campus, you could always start one and you’ll certainly gain some great skills in doing so, but those skills may be more in organisation and admin than in the actual industry, sport or hobby.
Which ones are active? In what way are they active?
Even if a club exists on campus, how active is it? If they’re only organising activities or meeting once a semester, it’s not going to be a great place to meet people and develop new skills or have fun. On the otherhand, an active club is a fantastic way to meet new classmates, network with alumni and learn about an industry or have fun taking part in a sport or hobby. Also find out what the club does, for example, if it’s the media club, do they just organise a yearly conference and a trek somewhere, or do they also organise more regular events.
Are there fees for joining or attending events?
Some clubs charge membership fees for covering their costs. These can sometimes be in excess of $200 per club, especially for sports clubs. Sometimes clubs may charge to attend visiting speakers on campus. I would say that almost always it’s worth whatever the club is asking. But perhaps those fees are the difference between exploring an area you’re vaguely interested in, and not.
Can I go on exchange or study overseas?
There are many benefits to studying in another location and many schools provide that opportunity. Some schools offer exchanges to other business schools around the world: LBS students can go on exchange to over 30 partner schools. Other schools offer the opportunity to study at satellite campuses around the world: INSEAD students often split their time between France and Singapore campuses.
Where can I go? How likely is it that I will get to go to my desired place?
If it’s an important factor being able to study away from the main business school campus, you want to find out how easy it is to take advantage of that opportunity. Exchange schools may only have one or two places available to students from your business school and these may been hotly sought after by your fellow classmates. Is the decision based on grades, essays, interviews, or something else? Imagine the disappointment if you select a business school for its exchange programme, only to then discover that you can’t go to your desired place.
Are there weekly drinks?
I think weekly drinks are universally offered at business schools around the world. They’re a great focal point for your class to come together and catch up with people you haven’t seen during the last week (or longer). Often students from different programmes attend, often faculty attend as well, so it can be a great place to meet new and interesting people. But not all drinks sessions are created equal. Ask if many people attend these. And ask if they cost to attend (some charge a fee per semester or year).
What treks are typically offered? Will they break the bank?
MBA students love treks. What is a trek? It’s a fancy word for a trip and they broadly fall into two categories: business treks and social treks. Business treks usually focus on visiting companies in certain industries, for example to New York for finance, Silicon Valley for technology, or Paris for luxury goods. Whereas social treks are about experiencing a new place and socialising with your classmates. Often classmates from the country you’re visiting organise the social treks; it’s a special experience travelling with friends who know all the hot spots to visit!
Treks are a great eye-opening experience and were one of my favourite things at business school. Some treks are generally offered every year, but some only take place when someone can be organised enough. Ask where the most popular treks go (perhaps start planning your holidays now?). Ask how tough it is to get a place on them (there is sometimes a cap, especially on business treks). And ask how much more they’re going to send you into debt. On second thought, you may not want to know.
Do the employers I want to hire me recruit from this school?
Don’t take it for granted. I heard of one top consulting company not recruiting from a top US school for a number of years after a certain incident. Also, some locations are better at recruiting for certain industries, for example, the percentage of graduates going into the tech sector from Stanford and Berkeley is much higher than most other MBA schools.
How many people have those employers historically taken? How does that compare with other schools?
One school may have 10 graduates hired each year from a certain company. If this is the company you want to work for, then this may sound great. But ask at another school and you may find 20 were hired from there. Potentially this means that the company has a preference for hiring from the second school and you may be better off there. But you need to look beyond just the base numbers. Take into consideration the class sise. Also, how many of those 20 hires are returning employees? If most of them are returning, maybe the better school for you is the one that only had 10 graduates hired. But take all of this with a grain of salt, as company preferences and hiring tendencies can change from year to year.
How good is the Career Services department at finding potential jobs for you?
There’s many ways to find a job, but one of the fastest and easiest is when your Career Services department is able to get companies recruiting at school and advertising directly on your school website. If the Career Services department is good at this, it may indicate those companies have a preference for hiring candidates from your school.
How good is the Career Services department at preparing you for interviews and jobs?
Good Career Services departments will also run a range of other activities and workshops to help prepare you for your interviews and jobs. These could be: networking and information sessions with companies; help with preparing your resume; practice interviews; practice case studies; practical skills for when you start your internship. Make sure to ask about what the Career Services department does to help students and also ask whether students got any benefit from it.
Do you want to live in that city?
For me, this is one of the most important factors in choosing a school. Perhaps the most important. Your school’s city or town is where you’re going to live for the next two years. Perhaps you want the restaurants, nightclubs, and everything else that the big cities offer. Or maybe you’re happy living amongst the trees in New England.
The location of your school will also likely determine where your post-MBA job is: a West Coast school will get you a West Coast job; an East Coast school gets you an East Coast job; and a European school most likely gets you a European job. This is because it’s much easier networking and interviewing with employers when you’re in the same location. This is obvious if you’re in different countries. But you could be surprised by the difference even between New York and Philadelphia if you’re looking to find a job in New York. It’s much easier and cheaper catching the subway than catching a train from Philadelphia for a coffee chat in Manhattan.
Does the school provide much financial help?
An MBA is a big financial investment and often you’re going to need financial help to pay for it. To what extent does your school help you? It may be that they have a large endowment and most students are provided some sort of scholarship. Or maybe the school has partnerships with banks or other institutions to offer you loans. Not all schools are able to offer this financial support, so if it’s important to you, make sure to ask.
There are no doubt many more questions you could ask to learn more about the differences between business schools. In fact, comment below on what other differences you’ve discovered.
Now that you have a better understanding of where the differences, my final advice is to dig deeper and find what makes your potential business schools different from each other. It’ll stand you in good stead for your application and to have a great time doing your MBA.
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